A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Friday, July 29, 2011

August Reading

This time of year, if you hang out in reader-friendly places like bookstores and libraries or read things such as, well, most any newspaper, they are hard to avoid, those lists of suggestions for summer reading.  I like lists of book suggestions--I like to see how many I've already read or heard of and to sneer delightedly at the inclusions I think are rot.  But most of all I like them for the gems they sometimes reveal.  Such lists are often how I am introduced to books that will later become some of my favorite reads.  But I've never understood why such lists insist that a summer read must be light and diverting. 

Oh, I understand the need for vacation reads or beach reads--the kinds of things that will occupy one slightly while what one is really doing is enjoying the sun and the sand.  Or that will occupy one fully but without much effort while one is really waiting for the plane or train or bus to get there.  But for most grown-up people, "vacation" means a week or so, and summer lasts a good deal longer than that.  What is it about this time of year that seduces us (or just our booksellers?) into thinking that only the fun and frivolous will do?  Is it a holdover from schooldays, when summer meant the release from obligations and heavy thinking and reading things one ought to read?  Is it that the higher temperatures slow down our brains and make anything more taxing than the latest G.R.R. Martin too sweat-inducingly difficult?  In his article on summer reads for the Barnes and Noble Review, Michael Dirda implies that it is both of these things: "No, what you want at this time of the year are the books that you can idly pick up, readily put down, then lazily pick up again, as you snooze in a hammock or toast in the sun."  And he suggests many books that would be perfect for just that kind of reading.

I love to read that way, and some books simply can't be read in bits in-between catnaps in the sun.  (The Wings of the Dove springs to mind.)  So, suggestions for the snooze-and-sun crowd are welcome.   However--and perhaps I'm the odd one out here--as much as I love a good snooze over a good book in the sun (or the shade), I can't imagine doing all of my reading in this way for three months any more than I can imagine eating nothing but grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob from June to September.  And I'm just as likely to read in lazy snatches in winter: cuddled on the couch, under a cozy blanket, cat on my feet--yes?  But no one ever makes "Winter Reading" lists or "By the Fire Reading" lists.  I think they would contain much the same material as summer lists, with perhaps slight differences in setting to suit the season.

Dirda claims that summer is no time to do one's really heavy reading.  "Save Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl for the bleaker days of February," he says.  I'm sorry, but I call shenanigans.  February is the last time of year anyone ought read Heidegger on purpose.  Save Wodehouse and his ridiculous romp through the British a. for February, when you might really need it to lift you out of a winter funk.  Do that heavy, demanding reading in summer when the light lasts longer and a refreshing walk through the brilliant sunshine can quickly restore your mood.

Perhaps the desire for light reads in summer reflects our fantasy of summer as a string of lazy afternoons when the pace of life slows to a crawl.  Summer is sleepy, and summer reads must forgive us for dropping off while perusing them.  But too much lazy, sleepy reading makes summer speed by.  The pace may be pleasingly languid, but, come September, upon looking back over that much longed-for season, all seems a groggy haze.  For me summer is a time for light, fun reads, yes, but it is also a time to settle fully into longer, more involving books.  The long days, the lazy evenings--these are perfect for knocking off tomes like Vanity Fair or finally reading one of those monsters one just never seems to get to, like London: A Biography.  Those lazy days of summer (if you're lucky enough to encounter any) allow time for the depth of concentration and contemplation necessary for some of those heavier reads.  Gulp down those light summer reads on vacation, at the beach, before bed during the week.  But set aside a couple of afternoons or evenings each week to read something that makes you slow down without dozing off, that makes you think, makes you engage, insists that you pay attention and get emotionally involved.  You may just find that doing so slows down your summer and makes those coveted long days slip away more slowly.

Laura's Pretty Good Alternate Summer Reading List
(Compiled from Previous Summer Reads)

* Paradise Lost, John Milton
* Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
* Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
* Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
* Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
* Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
* The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
* The Ball and the Cross, G. K. Chesteron
* The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
* To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
* Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
* The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
* The Hamlet, William Faulkner
* The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
* Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin
* The Chosen, Chaim Potok
* Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
* The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
* A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where does one go for a good book around here?

Yesterday I talked about the particular ways returning to a place I used to live can be unsettling.  But I'll note that in all those feelings of displacement there's been very few actual disappointments.  In fact, aside from leaving behind our favorite pizza joint, there's really only been one.  But it's a big one: where are the bookstores?

As far as I've been able to determine, there are only two within easy distance: the local shop downtown that's been there forever (established 1841) and a smallish (as big box stores go) Borders in the mall.  Both would do as places to procure books (either will order for you most anything in print), but neither is a good browsing bookshop.  Borders is too impersonal (an attribute that is far from common to all such large, big-business stores--I find Barnes and Noble to be very inviting) and the depth of their stock is abysmal.  The local independent also has a (very) limited selection, but that could be excused in the name of supporting local business and local color.  If only the shop were at all inviting.  But whenever I go in there, I feel closed in by its cramped layout and pick up a subtle suggestion that the staff would just as soon I not hang about too long.

Yesterday, the prospects for impromptu book-browsing in Billport appeared dim.  Today, they are positively depressing.  Borders is closing all of its stores in the fall.  I wasn't thrilled with that Borders in the mall, but it was at least a place to browse for books.  And it made a lovely last stop in a stroll around the mall.  I can only hope that a B&N (or even a Books-A-Million) might take over their premises.

I grew up with slim, but adequate, bookstore options.  In my early and pre-teen years, there was the Paperback Booksmith in the mall and the book department in the Globe.  Later there was the independent in town and Walden and B. Dalton stores in the mall.  A big, stand-alone Borders did come to the parking lot near the old mall (somewhat surprisingly, it took over the building from a movie theater), but that was later, when I was about ready to leave for college.  I did my book-browsing in the library during college and my masters degree (no funds), so the lack of great bookstores around me didn't matter so much then.  My apartment in Knoxville was a five-minute drive from both a Borders and a Barnes and Noble, with another Borders a bit further a field.  A local independent sat a few blocks from campus, and there was McKay's, a wonderful, brilliantly-organized used bookstore filling a warehouse-sized space.  We were a two-minute drive from a Barnes and Noble in Roanoke, with another one at the mall, and a ten-minute drive from a local independent with a good selection of fiction and nonfiction, a nice mysteries room, and a brilliant children's and young adult wing.  There was a Books-A-Million, a good used bookshop in the historic part of town, and a so-so paperback-swap type of used shop as well.

M and I have a fair amount of books.  They would not rival the collections of some of the most serious readers and collectors of books, but most people who visit us, even those who are readers and book-people themselves, find the number of books in our possession to be impressive.  Our collection numbers slightly shy of two thousand books, and we are always getting more.  But we are not getting more at the rate that might be suggested by my preoccupation with bookshops.  And in the last eight months or so, we've been trying to limit our book-buying a bit in order to save some money for the move.  We've been going to the library more and making impulse-buys at bookstores less.

But the thing is, we don't go to bookstores just to buy books.  If we did, the local bookshop downtown would serve our needs perfectly.  If what we wanted wasn't on the shelves, we'd ask them to order it.  Done and done.  For that matter, if all we wanted to do was get a book, amazon or any other book website would do just fine.  But we go to bookshops to go to bookshops.  We go to be in the company of the books, to see what's newly come out, to explore the possibilities for future reading, even if we aren't in the market for book-buying that day.  We browse.  We have an outing.  This is my pleasure a bit more than M's--I suspect he will miss it less than I will.  Book-browsing is what I do when I want to get out of the apartment, when I get into a funk with what I'm reading, when my soul gets damp and drizzly and November-y.  It isn't retail therapy, exactly, because buying something isn't necessary.  It's the experience more than walking out of the shop with a new book that is the thing.  (Though a new book doesn't hurt.)

And that is why the notion of only one, not-very-satisfying bookshop in town is so depressing and disappointing.  I'm not worried about being unable to get books.  I'm wondering what I'll do, where I'll go, when I feel like knocking people's hats off in the streets.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I began to get cross-eyed, I thought I was lost, I'd begun to see things as they ain't.

Before we moved just over two weeks ago, I'd been living with my husband, M, in Roanoke, Virginia, while he finished a residency program there.  Before that I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, for five years doing a PhD.  And before that it was Athens, Ohio, for two years in a masters program.  I moved to Athens from my parents' home in Newton Township, Pennsylvania, a rural area abutting the West Side of Scranton, but really I'd been living in college dorms and apartments in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the four years preceding my time in in Ohio.  And that's where M and I have moved to now.  Not just "to" Williamsport, but "back to" Williamsport, the city where we both spent four years at Lycoming College.  To the city where we both agree we've each spent some of the best times of our lives.

We are excited about the move; we made a home in Roanoke, but it wasn't home.  And long before M landed the job we've moved for, we had agreed that north-central or northeastern Pennsylvania would be an ideal place to try to settle for good.  We are closer to our families, and we are both looking forward to Pennsylvania seasons and weather.  That we will be moving to a city we both know and like is simply a blessing.  But perhaps a bit of a mixed blessing.

Having gone to college here does make Williamsport a home for both M and I, and it fell into the triangular section of Pennsylvania that I would have considered home territory as an adolescent and young adult.  My parents both attended Lyco, so I had visited the college campus and the city of Williamsport with them well before I was old enough to consider seriously where I might be going to college. 

Home, 1981-2003.
But it was really Lyco that was home, not Williamsport.  When I return to the campus now, I feel like I'm going home, and while I feel that way a bit when I drive west along I-180 and approach the city the way my parents and I would have several times a year throughout my time at Lyco , that feeling is associated with going back to school, not with the city itself.  I didn't have a car in college, and while a few of my friends did, we still mostly stayed on or close to campus.  With rare exception, my understanding of Williamsport in college was limited to that which could be found within a three- or four-block radius of campus.  That area included a lot of what is wonderful about the city, but it sure left out a lot as well.  And it didn't give me any kind of understanding of what it would be like to live here as anything other than a college student. 

Of course, I knew that living in Williamsport in our thirties would be worlds different from living in Williamsport while attending Lycoming.  It couldn't help but be anything but completely different, really.  But the notion of returning home made me expect the transition--from six years of living in the south and a total of eight years away from the slice of PA that was home for twenty-two years--to be easier than other big moves I've made.  The move to Ohio was a bit of a shock.  (Athens is hilly, but venture out of town a bit and it is flat.  I had no idea that such a thing could have such a profound effect on one's mood.  And southeast Ohio is a sauna from May through September--a sauna that even the most muggy, soupy August day in PA had not even begun to prepare me for.  I learned how to submit to weather in Ohio, how to lie low under the heat there.)  And Tennessee was a different world, a world where everyone was weirdly polite and strangely friendly but where no one seemed to see the world quite the way I did.  But I expected those places to feel strange, to take some getting used to.  I expected Pennsylvania to feel like a breath of fresh air after all those years away.

And it has been.  But it's been like the first breath of bitterly cold air on a crisp winter morning--welcome and refreshing, but a bit sharp as well.  I've slotted back into some things with hardly any notice.  Even after eight years living below the Mason-Dixon line, certain accents and turns of phrase would strike my ear as singularly odd.  Even accents I liked and regionalisms that delighted and intrigued me reminded me, consistently, quietly, that I wasn't home, that I didn't exactly belong.  So hearing the Pennsylvania regionalisms I grew up with again is a bit like putting shoes on the right feet.  I only notice how right it feels because I'd been wearing my shoes on the wrong feet for so long.

But other aspects of living away have wiggled their way into my expectations and my ideas of "normal."  When I first moved to Tennessee, I was forever impatient in check-out lines.  Was it really necessary to get into a full-blown conversation with every customer?  Couldn't the cashier hurry up?  By the time I moved to Roanoke, which, though further north, has even a slower pace than Knoxville, probably because it is a smaller city, I had mostly perfected the stroll, and learned to live with the unhurried.  Now I'm back up north and most public interactions feel rushed.  Would it kill you to ask how I am while you ring up that fruit?  Can't you wait til I've put my wallet away before you move on to the person behind me?

At first I thought I'd never learn to drive in Knoxville, which in many parts of the city is a mass of multi-lane roads and boasts a  six- or eight-lane interstate as the most practical way of getting from one side of town to the other.  But after a year or so, I could navigate all that high-speed merging and maze of exits like a native (southerners, in my experience, drive faster than they do anything else), and the roads in Pennsylvania now seem hopelessly pitted and narrow.  Driving through downtown Williamsport feels tricky and complicated (one-way streets seem to pop up out of nowhere, other drivers appear to understand which lanes are turn-only by magic, and the left-turn arrow apparently is a rarely-bestowed gift), and it is only now that I've left Knoxville and Roanoke that I've realized how blessed those cities are with wide thoroughfares with room for multiple lanes and common-left turn lanes (I'd give a lot for a common left-turn lane on The Strip).  Of course, in a year, I will hold my ability to navigate downtown and its one-way streets as a proud accomplishment, but for now, like my slight discomfort with the pace of life here, these difficulties are a reminder that Pennsylvania isn't as much home as I thought it would be.  Yet.  

When I think back on Roanoke, on Knoxville, on Athens, I think of them fondly, I think of them as places to which I would like to return and rediscover old familiar places.  They have become a part of me, of my past.  And they got that way partly because I had to work to make them home.  I had to seek out the places that I would come to think of as in some way "mine," I had to learn to let the place show me what it had to offer.  And I'm slowly realizing that I will have to let Williamsport do the same.   I was looking forward to coming home. Now it may be time to let home come to me.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

Second Door on the Left

We arrived in our new apartment about a week and a half ago, and I think we might just be set up finally.  I'll chime in later with thoughts about the move, the new place, and returning "home," but for now: a tour!

Come through.  Mind the cat.

The Grey Creeps sees phantoms in the stairwell.

One of the things I think M and I were most excited about was buying ourselves some "real" furniture for the living room.   That chair on the right feels particularly posh and grown-up, somehow.

Do sit down.  I wonder if Mrs. Bale might rustle us up some drinks.

Our dining room in the last place was really an indentation in the hall leading to the bedrooms.  And actually sitting at the dining room table, because of a not-so-well-placed bookcase, required a maneuver.  But no longer!

The Dining Room: No maneuvers required.

It seems that apartment kitchens, once you get one that is larger than a broom closet, are much of a muchness.  But this one is aces on cabinet space.

Though it could do with a broom closet, actually.

One of our dreams is to someday have a house in which we have an honest-to-goodness library.  Floor-to-ceiling shelves.  Nothing but books, books, books, and a few nice comfy armchairs.  It's almost an impossibility in Apartment Land, I fear (I can't fathom why they don't run to floor-to-ceiling shelves), but we have come pleasingly close. 

"My" room, in the sense that it's my things decorating it and it's where I will do very little, slowly my writing . . .

. . . but also a lovely place to sit together and read.

We've gone simple and a tiny bit spare in the bedroom (the last was full-to-bursting with bookshelves), and somehow it feels grown up, too, not to have the library spilling over into the bedroom (except around the nightstands, of course).

That lump in  front of the pillows is The Black Bullet, what seems to have found a fun hidey place for naps.

The Black Bullet and The Grey Creeps share a nap with Wallis.  They will try to deny it.  Sorry, kittens.  Pictures means it happened.

The Grey Creeps builds up strength for fierce stalkings later on.

One of the best things about the new place is that M now has a room for his own, too. 

Just please don't call it a man cave.

It's slowly becoming not just a nice set of rooms nicely set up, but our home.  And I have to admit that this helps:

                  "Good of the Pinkishes to get this chair for us, eh, GC?"   "Do hush, BB.  The sound of your voice curls my whiskers, and I just cannot abide curling whiskers at naptime.  It's just so frightfully undrowsy."